Tuesday, July 30, 2013

True Stories From My Life. Part 2: Me And Allen Ginsberg

(100% TRUE.)

It was a very cold day November, 1994, in New York City. I was walking north on Fifth Av in midtown. The broad sidewalks were crowded with people as usual on a weekday, and wisps of snow blew around on the concrete. I had the impression that it was one of those days when it was too cold for snow to fall heavily.

As I crossed an intersection I saw a young man on the other side, facing toward me, facing south, standing still and so standing out from all the people who'd begun to move when we got the green light. He was probably in his 20's, had fair thinning hair which was cut short, was just a little bit on the pudgy side. He stood out for other reasons too: He was wearing a winter jacket, but it wasn't zipped up. There was no hood on his jacket, and he wasn't wearing a hat, or gloves. Or shoes or socks. His toes hung over the edge of the curb. His arms hung at his sides with his palms turned forward. His eyes were rolled up into his head. But what really made him stand apart from the crowd was that his fly was open and he was peeing into the street in a thick stream. The real "New York" aspect of the situation was, with all the big crowds around, no one was paying any attention to him.

A block or two further, between 47th and 48th on the east side of 5th, I came to Brentano's bookstore, a great bookstore. That 5th Av location has since closed. As I entered the store Allen Ginsberg came rushing out, so hastily that we very nearly crashed into one another, his face came within inches of my face. I didn't have time to turn around and say "I'm sorry" before he was gone. At the time I had the impression that either he was late for an appointment and rushing to get there, or repulsed by something or someone in the store and rushing to get away before he lost his temper or something. This was long before I had been diagnosed as autistic. Since that diagnosis a third explanation for me and Allen Ginsberg so nearly colliding has occurred to me. Because I am autistic, my perceptions of events often differ radically from those of others, and because I know that now, I wonder whether possibly Ginsberg had not been rushing along at all, but rather that I had been lumbering along like a big half-blind moose (I'm rather large), abstracted, in my head and not watching where I was going, and so that perhaps the near-collision was entirely my fault. I am not good in crowded situations and that is putting it mildly. I've taken to making extra conscious efforts to get out of other people's way in crowded places.

A forth possibility has also occurred to me: perhaps Ginsberg was in a terrible rush, but not because he was late to be somewhere else nor very anxious not to be there anymore, but because he knew the young barefoot urinating gentleman, and had just been alerted as to his current behavior, and was rushing to the young man's aid and hoping he got there before the guy got into trouble. This forth possibility jibes more with my image of Ginsberg as consistently compassionate and concerned for the welfare of people in trouble. I have no idea whether or not this image is accurate because I never met Ginsburg apart from that near-collision.

Once I was inside the store, I asked an employee, "Was that Allen Ginsberg?" The employee said yes, he had just given a reading. I was disappointed that I had missed that. I asked if I could fill out a job application. Brentano's never hired me -- within a few days I was working at another bookstore on the west side of 5th Av a few blocks farther north -- and a few years later they went out of business. A complete coincidence? You tell me.

Monday, July 29, 2013

True Stories From My Life. Part 1: Me And Joey Ramone

(100% TRUE.)

It was 1996, and I was working in a bookstore in the East Village. (This was a little bit before the East Village became "cool" -- in my opinion anyway. But what do I know?) On our lunch break, a co-worker asked if I'd like to go to a sushi restaurant with him. I had never had sushi before and was intrigued. (Turned out, I like sushi a lot. In my opinion now, cooked fish is pretty much ruined fish.) We were pretty close to where CBGB was (it closed a while ago), around where Joey Ramone Place is now, when I saw Joey Ramone and another guy get out of a van across the street. I said to my coworker, "Hey, look, it's Joey Ramone!" I waved at Joey and yelled in my booming baritone, "Hey, Joe-EEEEEE!" My coworker cringed and whispered something about being cool. Joey waved back and yelled in his booming baritone, "Hey, how you doin', man!" Maybe my coworker cringed because he thought I was about to run across the street and bother Joey for an autograph or something, but I'd just wanted to say Hello. I was done. My coworker and I kept walking down our side of the street toward the sushi restaurant, and Joey and the other guy went on about their business.

Someone Asked Whether Religion Was Bad For Animals

The answer is obviously yes: we're animals and religion is bad for us. It's also unfortunate that some religions teach that humans are fundamentally different from other life forms. I'm not an expert on Native American cultures, but I gather that some of them regard humans as just one part of life, no more important than other parts, an insight which Graeco-Roman Judaeo-Christian culture has resisted with much tenacity. And for all I know there many be many other human cultures in other parts of the world which lack these strange ideas about humans being unique, and about "nature" as something separate from humans. It amazes me to see how many biologists, although they've managed to shake the primitive belief in a deity or deities, still hang on to primitive ideas of human exceptionalism, insisting that humans are unique and separate from the rest of life, in the face of ever-mounting evidence that we are not. It's as if they haven't fully grasped the fact that all life forms are continuing to evolve, and that a paltry few million years ago our ancestors were creatures which human exceptionalists would not recognize as human, and that there's no reason to think that in a paltry few million years the descendants of dogs or cats won't be able to read or build computers or do other things which supposedly are "uniquely human." (What, you think dogs and cats aren't paying attention to us?) Not to mention assuming things such as that other species here and now have no human-like emotions, or that we actually comprehend their sophistication in other fundamental ways and are therefore qualified to compare them (disparagingly) with ourselves. Heraclitus and Nietzsche only got this one half right when they pointed out the similarity between apes and humans and said that people don't want to see the obvious similarities because apes are ugly and the similarity is insulting to us: some of the similarities between us and apes are insulting to the apes.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

My Opinion Of Myself And Some Others. An Advertisement For Myself

I feel pretty good about what I write. I think I'm a good writer.

And suddenly today that started to worry me, when I contrasted it with remarks about writing by two of my favorite writers. One is by Kurt Vonnegut,from the preface to one of his books. I don't remember it word-for-word but it went something like this: "How do I feel about this book? I feel lousy about it. I feel lousy about all my books." Seemed he felt somewhat embarrassed that he hadn't be able to do better. The other remark is by Samuel Beckettand is more concise: "To write is to fail."

That's what two writers whom I find to be excellent -- Beckett especially -- have to say for themselves. Pretty close to outright apologizing for doing what they did. What I'm worried about is that perhaps they were so good in significant part because they were profoundly dissatisfied with themselves, and therefore constantly striving mightily to do better, and that, conversely, my satisfaction with my own work keeps it relatively mediocre. But you know what? I still think I'm pretty good. And people whose opinions I value highly also have praised my work.

I wouldn't say that it's a widespread opinion that I'm a good writer, because I don't think enough people know anything at all about me for any opinion about me to legitimately be called widespread. I'm not good at marketing my work. I'm more sure about this negative opinion of my marketing skills than about my positive opinion of my writing, because marketing skills can be measured objectively, in terms of numbers, and the quality of writing cannot. I won't tell you how few clicks this blog gets, because 1) I don't want you to cry or feel sorry for me, and 2) it's basically nunya bidniss nohow. But I need an agent. I had an agent once, a good one, but I lost him again, because I never finished the novel which got him interested in working for me, and by the time I finished another novel he had moved on to another profession. I got that agent by the sheerest and dumbest of sheer dumb luck, and unfortunately for me, finding an agent, a skilled person to market one's work, is itself a kind of marketing. (*sigh*)

And because I am not (yet) so hugely successful that counting my money and turning down business offers occupies all of my free time, and also because I am a bit of a schmuck, let's face it, I spend some time commenting on articles on Huffingtom Post, where they keep us schmucks coming back and clicking on their site and making them money with dumb things including badges, yes badges, and what inspired me to write this post was that today I noticed that ________* had received the Community Pundit badge, which comes with the perk that some of yr comments are conspicuously placed above the others immediately below the text of an article. I'm pretty sure that the Pundits don't actually get PAID or anything, still it irks me mightily than an absolute dolt and moron like ________ has been named a Pundit, whilst I have not.

Then again, do I really want to be in a club which would have ________ as a member? And how are Pundits really chosen? HP says:

"HuffPost Pundits are our most engaged and thought-provoking commenters. Pundit Badges are awarded based on a strong history of insightful comments,"

which sounds as if HP would have us believe that some actual human beings working (as unpaid interns?) for HP found ________ to be insightful and thought-provoking. Can that really be? If that's true it would be quite discouraging, for it would mean that some real bozos are driving the bus over there. Or are Pundit badges actually awarded like the other badges: by a machine which counts clicks, counts things like fans and friends and faves? That too would be discouraging, but in a different way: it would be yet another indication that HP comments section is just another internet flame war trying to pass itself off as a moderated "community."

In any case, sad for me that my life's empty enough that I care. May that change soon, completely and forever. From your lips, gentle readers -- from both of you -- to Andrew Wylie's ears.

*I considered writing ________'s handle in this post, but why do that?

The 2014 Midterms

What's that you say? It's a tad early to be thinking about the midterms? No, it's not early at all. "Nach dem Spiel ist vor dem Spiel." Also, for a while the Republicans have been outdoing us in contributions, advertising and turnout in the midterms. Why not try to turn that around? A Republican would be less likely to say it's early yet. "Traditionally," anyway, as the "pundits" tend to say, who are better at reading returns from past elections than at gauging what's going on around them now, because the latter is hard, let's face it. The Dems have defied a few pieces of "conventional wisdom" lately -- ah, imagine if wisdom actually were conventional, wouldn't that be sweet -- and if we can manage a huge turnout in 2014, that could make for a truly tremendous change in the US. Imagine if Obama could spend his last 2 years in office with a Congress which co-operated with him, except for the occasions when it pulled him to the Left.

Contact your local Democratic Party. If you don't know where the local HQ is, look here. Volunteer. Educate yourself on health care, the environment, voting rights, civil rights, education itself and other issues. TALK TO PEOPLE ABOUT POLITICS. (Although in the case of people who have voted Green in the past and intend to continue doing so, you may want to consider how much time you want to spend talking to them. It would be a waste of your time to spend too much time talking to people who are too stupid to grasp the difference between the US political system and systems employing proportional representation, in which voting Green is not worse than a complete waste, where Greens are actually elected to public office. Try to spend your time and energy to maximum effect.) Register new voters.

And since we all know that most of you will actually do none of that, at least GET UP OFF OF YOUR BUTTS ON NOVEMBER 4, 2014, AND VOTE. Thanks.

We mustn't be overconfident. Overconfidence will ruin your game every time, in chess and in politics. Democrats were overconfident after the 2008 elections, and in 2010 the Tea Party happened. The Tea Party was overconfident after 2010, and in 2012 we handed their asses to them. It's time to stop the 2012 Snoopy happy dance NOW and put on our game faces.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Congress Recently Amended A Bill To Prevent The Military From Hiring Secular Humanist Chaplains, And I'm Not Too Upset About It

-- because, what the heck is a Secular Humanist chaplain anyway? I've only encountered one so far, Chris Stedman, a Secular Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, and Stedman is hard for me to take when I'm in a good mood. It's hard for me to imagine him being much comfort to military personnel in crisis. To me he's barely distinguishable from a "modern" Christian or Jewish theologian. He's more supportive of religion, more quick to excuse its flaws and more critical of other atheists, than many of the conventional sort of religious clergypeople.

Jason Heap had been attempting to become the Navy's first Humanist chaplain. It's unclear at the moment whether -- excuse me. Let me re-phrase that in a less pompous manner: I don't know whether this amendment will prevent his appointment. Heap is 38 years old, a graduate of the Brite Divinity School and Oxford University, and has the endorsement of the Humanist Society, whoever they are. In case you're wondering whether Brite Divinity School might be some sort of atheist institution, associated with the so-called "brights" -- no such luck. It's a Christian seminary affiliated with Texas Christian University. Oh joy, another theologian, just what the world needed, and atheists in particular.

It is my considered opinion that what is most urgently needed in the military, what has been insufficiently replaced by chaplains for a long, long time, and, I fear, would be just as insufficiently replaced by Secular chaplains, is psychologists. Unfortunately, of course, there is still a great stigma attached to psychology: ("You want to consult with a specialist in the human mind in order to improve your mood and coping skills?! What are ya, crazy?!")

I'm not crazy about the idea of Secular clergy, in the military or elsewhere. I've noticed that some atheist churches have sprung up, and I'm not dying to visit any of them. (I attended a Unitarian church for a little while once, and I'm not going back anytime soon.) I think that the atheist monuments going up on public land next to things like copies of the Ten Commandments are silly, and I think the energy put into the court battles for permission to erect those monuments would've been much better spent supporting science education and combating the efforts of pseudoscientific Creationism to attain the status, legally and in people's opinions, of science. I think that the formal debates between atheists and creationists lend Creationism an air of seriousness it doesn't deserve. The fact that "In God We Trust" is on our money doesn't bother me. It seems I disagree with the typical New Atheist on every one of those points, with the possible exception of the Unitarians. It seems that snake handlers, "modern" theologians and New Atheists all differ from me in their need for forms and institutions which are either religious or copy religions.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Bullying For Fun And Profit

I wonder whether it was purely a coincidence that an episode of "The Big Bang Theory" which deals with the issue of bullying aired recently on TBS right before the premiere of "Deal With It," a reality/game show which IS bullying. Could it possibly be that the scheduling was more than a coincidence, that an executive who had failed to prevent TBS from greenlighting "Deal With It" made sure that those two half-hours aired back-to-back, as a subtle form of protest?

In "The Speckerman Recurrence," the episode of "The Big Bang Theory" in question, Jimmy Speckerman (played by Lance Barber, a very nice guy irl, so I hear), who bullied Howard when they were in high school, unexpectedly shows up, and Howard decides to confront his former tormenter. In talking about the topic of bullying with Bernadette and Amy, Penny realizes that she was a bully in high school, whereas her two friends were both victims of bullying, and becomes sensitized to the issue.

All very well and good. And then we immediately cut to "Deal With It," in which celebrity bullies put hidden earpieces on civilian victims and get their rocks off by making them humiliate themselves and endanger close relationships for a chance at getting a check which, I'll just bet you anything, is smaller than any of the checks the celebrities get for the episode. The victims piss their pants, stick their fingers up their noses, try to kiss friends on the lips, pretend to flirt in front of their spouses, etc. The most satisfying victim, the one who goes along the farthest and the best with the bullies' orders, gets $5000. Oh what fun for the celebrities and the sadists at home.

It's disgusting.

I don't know anything at all about Howie Mandel, the executive producer of "Deal With It," and so the following is pure speculation and may be 100% wrong. But it seems to me that earlier in his career, as a stand-up comic and then on "St Elsewhere," Mandel was very vulnerable, a nerd, clearly someone who must have been inviting prey to bullies in school. And then suddenly, sometime before "Deal Or No Deal," Mandel butched up. The shaved head. The pirate earrings, yarrrr... The soul patch. And the 'tude, suddenly it was completely different too, and has remained so. Mandel suddenly looked and acted much more like a bully than a victim of bullying. It seems he's going to continue the cycle instead of, hey lookit that, dealing with it.

People Using Big Words (And Sometimes Even Short Ones) They Don't Understand, ie Theologians

"Narrative." "Meaningful." "Powerful." "Dialectic." "Analytical." "Experiencing truth." You starting to smell the theology? Good. "As long as we're clear." "Hermeneutics." For at least the past few centuries, probably more like the past few thousand years or longer, religion has always been opposed to clarity. "A powerful approach to rethinking narratives." (Beware of the superfluous use of words three or more syllables long.) For as long as people have been spotting religion's inconsistencies, and replacing religion with things like science. Maybe religion did have some tremendous benefits 5000 years ago. Got people motivated and organized, took them from tiny villages to big cities, even if they were motivated by errors. "A telling prognosis of the public debate." More recently, however, some bright folks have been trying awfully hard to "impart" that religion leaves a lot of room for improvement. Ideally not by switching to an improved version of religion but by leaving religion behind. People still read Homer, but no longer in a religious way. And that's an improvement.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Deleted From Huffington Post's Readers' Comments, Reconstructed From Memory

Frank Schaffer writes:

Where is God when a child is shot in Newtown or hung in Auschwitz or killed in an American drone air strike or for that matter dies of cancer? I don't know. There is no answer.

There's a very clear answer, Frank, believers just don't want to hear it: He's all in your heads. People made him up to try to explain things and to help them cope. God is obviously still a great coping mechanism for many people, but science has been explaining things better for a long time now, and coming up with all sorts of ways to solve problems, undreamt of in earlier eras when religion still represented the intellectual cutting edge (thousands of years farther back in the past in my opinion than in yours), problems which therefore don't have to be coped with by means of flights of fancy and escapes from reality. For example: we haven't completely eradicated cancer yet the way we've eradicated many other diseases, but we're getting closer, and in the meantime we're getting better and better at treating it, and we haven't eradicated those other diseases nor made that progress with cancer by praying or interpreting Scripture, we've done it with science. Science, with which religion is still constantly interfering. (Pushing the HP Religion party line that neither fundamentalism nor literalism nor a conflict between religion and science goes back further than the 19th century is a blatant interference with the study of history, as blind and counterproductive as insisting that the world is 6000 years old.)

By the way, HP mods? Deleting perfectly reasonable comments phrased in a civilized manner just because they express points of view at odds with your own does not make HP look modern and enlightened and progressive and tolerant. HP Religion constantly pushes an image of itself as modern, enlightened, progressive, tolerant believers -- plus a couple of token docile atheists -- and it's constantly deleting perfectly reasonable comments. I can see the comments posted by my friends which have been removed. Of course, if which comments are removed is not decided by the moderators' judgement at all but is just a matter of how many flags a comment receives, that would be even worse. That would mean, in effect, that what we have here are not moderated comments at all, but flame wars.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Is That You, Dan Brown?

No, actually this is someone else. But It may be someone who has read some of Dan Brown's stuff and thought it was non-fiction.

Let's see how many mistakes we can spot:

"The NT is not written evidence, its a compilation of writings/myths from much later than the supposed historical Jesus lived that were picked over by 4th century Italians combining pagan rituals and newer Christian beliefs into one unifying state mandated religion forming the basis of the Roman Catholic church that has been the center of greed, power and corruption in the world ever since and has spun off over 30,000 sects of Christianity that disagree with each other about the details."

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Christianity, The Enlightenment, The American Revolution And The French Revolution

Person A asserted that the leading minds of the Enlightenment were "almost all devout believers," and that the Enlightenment was an attempt to better understand God by using science to better understand His creation. I responded, and I quote:

"Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Hume, Voltaire -- all devout believers? Hm. Another view is that they were all atheists, and came as close as they dared to openly saying so, often getting themselves into serious trouble just for suggesting it between the lines ("I advance masked," Descartes said. Will we ever know just exactly what he meant by that?), bravely preparing the ground so that later atheists could express themselves openly without getting tortured and burned alive for it."

(Of course, other leading minds of the period, such as Pascal, Leibniz and Newton, were in fact devout believers. And Berkeley was either a Christian or fooled some people into believing that he was. He was an Anglican-Irish Bishop, after all. I don't see anything in his philosophical speculations about consciousness and perception which is incompatible with atheism, but perhaps that's just me. The point is that the Enlightenment as a whole cannot be categorized as either pro- or anti-religion or pro- or anti-Christian, things simply weren't that clear-cut.)

At this point person B jumped in and said that "the Atheistic/Humanist Enlightenment French Revolution" resulted in "Robespierreian" slaughter, whilst Christian Enlightenment brought forth "Free America." And he greatly startled me by asserting that "Franklin & other Founders (who deeply understood implications of various philosophic thoughts) warned the American Revolution inspired French philosophers not to cut Christianity out of their model, that otherwise the coming French Revolution would fail." I'm writing this blog post instead of responding to B. Although I feel that perhaps I should respond to B. The Stoic side of me says I should, that it is my often-unpleasant duty to try to educate dullards, that that is what I can, and should, contribute to society. Of course, the Epicurean part of me not only avoids morons but strongly urges people I like to do the same. I'm here being Epicurean and avoiding getting all dirty by wrestling a pig.

So, "Free America." My immediate thought was that African and Native Americans might not think of America as particularly free. Many from both groups fought with the British against the rebels in the American Revolution. England and France and many other countries emancipated slaves long before the US did. "Free." Unions have faired much better in most of Europe than in the US. I have a feeling that B believes the "right to work" actually amounts to more freedom for workers, and that unions, with their much higher wages, health insurance, protection from mistreatment and unwarranted dismissal, somehow oppress workers.

Be that as it may, did Franklin warn French philosophers not to divorce themselves from Christianity, or the French Revolution would fail? I'm having trouble substantiating this. For one thing, to what extent did Franklin foresee the French Revolution? He died in 1790 when it was barely underway. He supported the movement to give full legal status to French citizens who weren't Catholic which finally came to success when Louis XVI signed the Edict of Versailles in 1787. Was this advocacy deism/stealth atheism, or everyday Protestant partisanship? Franklin's views on religion aren't at all clear -- not to me, at least. At times he seems like a tiresome pious old schoolmarm, lecturing the American Revolutionaries for not praying enough as a group, and at times he seems like a deist neocon in that he advocates traditional Christianity for "the masses" but not for clever people (such as himself of course) who see through it all. I suppose it's possible that he gave that sort of neocon-type advice to this or that French philosopher between bouts of chess and lechery. (Can you tell I'm not as impressed by Franklin as many others have been? Good.)

So, one, I can't find evidence that Franklin really did advise anyone who was planning the French Revolution to keep Christianity in it, and two, more importantly, I don't particularly care if he did. Many American atheists seem to have the unfortunate habit of treating the public and private utterances of the Founding Fathers, Tom Paine and Mark Twain as if they were Holy Scripture, quoting them as if the quotes were sufficient to settle disputes of all kinds. I don't.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

We Don't Need Would-Be-Deep Theologians Telling Us What We Need!

I only use the word "we" in the headline to make fun of all the articles with "we" in the headline which purport to tell entire civilizations how they feel. It may be that there are such essays written these days by people other than clergypeople and theologians, I don't know. I just know that more often than now and then a reverend or priest or rabbi or Professor of Theology, or sometimes more than one of the above united in one person, gets depressed, and projects his mood upon millions. "Why do we feel so empty inside?" one of them may ask. What you mean, "we," Kimosabe? I don't feel empty inside at the moment. I'm not completely unfamiliar with the feeling, but at the moment, I feel alright. "People don't seem to trust religion anymore." Well, good! Sounds like maybe they're recovering from religion, or potentially about to, or never suffered from it to begin with. Religion hasn't been at the cutting edge of human thought for thousands of years. (Yes, I know that in Medieval Christendom, all scientists were Christians, or pretended to be in order to be allowed to be scientists. That was a forced unity of science and religion -- worse, actually: a forced unity of science and one religion -- which is very convenient for the nincompoops today who insist that there is no conflict between science and religion, and was very bad for science at the time.) Perhaps what really feels particularly empty inside at the moment is the house of worship where the depressed clergyperson-author is attempting to make a living. I feel for someone who entered a profession which not long ago seemed like a completely reliable way of making a living, and now, all of a sudden, does not. I feel for the farmers who used to make a reliable living growing tobacco, and now, all of a sudden, cannot. I feel for them, but I still think they should switch to other crops.

In the 19th century in the US, religion -- well, Christianity -- well, evangelical Protestantism -- boomed. Pastors proclaimed that what "we" needed was "old time religion." I'm not sure how accurate at the time the adjective "old" was to describe what they were offering, but old-time religion was what it was called, and it was what the pastors were offering, and it was a booming industry. These days, "old time religion" is offered mostly on the political right wing. In the politically-progressive publications where these depressed men and women of God are going on and on about what "we" need, very little could be less popular than old-time religion. And so these depressed theologians insist that we need "new ways" into the same old religious stuff. (Sometimes by going along with the nuclear option of denying that what they offer is religious at all, but the dreaded SBNR.) These are the clearest-imaginable cases of projection: it is they who need new ways to attract people to their congregations. I'm really not so upset with them. They're trying to save their jobs. Trying to sell their tobacco, as it were. Yeah, well, I quit smoking and I think others should too. The depressed theologians need to adapt and change -- and not by trying to re-invent their millennia-old wheels.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Over-Optimistic Tolerant Christians, Today And In Earlier Eras

There was a time in Europe when homosexuality was considered neither a sin nor a crime nor a perversion nor a shame. Top politicians, including some Roman Emperors, indulged in it without feeling any need to hide it for fear of scandal. The most popular philosopher in ancient Europeeven asserted that every man should engage in it, and people didn't condemn him for it, they barely batted an eye. (He's still the most popular philosopher in Europe, and in the Western Hemisphere, too, but back then more people actually read his works, and his views on sexuality were better known and less liable to startle anyone.)

Then all that changed: Christians took over, and among many other sweeping changes made homosexuality a sin and a shame and a perversion. Gay life, along with many other perfectly normal things, went underground.

Then beginning in the 12th century there was a big thaw in European prohibitions of love -- in Europe itself that is, because many of the Europeans who took Christianity most seriously were in the Middle East, giving grief to other people, and the gay -- by gay I mean happy, but they were happy because of the increase in freedom -- the gay courtiers had a heyday, the "shocking" troubadours sang their songs and even dared to write some of them down, so that we today can read them. It must've seemed to some Europeans as if all of that stern intolerant Christianity was over. Not that any of the goyim dared to go so far as to declare that he was no longer a Christian at all. Not on paper, anyway.

But no, of course, the grim sternness was not gone for good. Around the end of the 13th century the Crusades fizzled out, the Crusaders returned home, gay court life and troubadour songs declined and the Inquisition began. Suddenly, many parties were over in a very big way. But the forces of tolerance and freedom -- of LIFE, as Nietzsche nicely puts it --fought back again in the Renaissance. Not only were some tendencies asserting themselves in culture which were quite un-Christian in their sensuality and openness of philosophical speculation: such tendencies were promoted, even embodied, by many churchmen -- even by some Popes. The Popes who in later eras have commonly been referred to as the "bad" Popes.

Then came the Reformation, a period of great confusion which shows that the confusion of SBNR is nothing new. Luther, the greatest of the Protestants, was protesting against the un-Christian character of Rome and the Vatican in that era, which Nietzsche and I admire so much. But some people thought at the time, and for a long time afterward, and apparently many still do today, that Luther, rather than objecting that certain traditional Christian rules seemed not to be applied any more, was himself overturning all of society's rules. Somehow they mistook, and even now mistake this grim authoritarian fundy who insisted on stricter Bible interpretation -- his own interpretation and not the Vatican's, and that was the whole essence of his conflict with the Vatican -- who saw ghosts and witches and told noblemen to put down rebelling peasants with the greatest possible severity, peasants who thought they'd been following him -- somehow people mistook and mistake this Bible-thumper for Leon Trotsky.

But things happen they way they do and not always in a way which makes sense, and so some freedoms Luther never wanted to say were achieved in his name, while on the other hand we got things which were more his speed, such as Puritanism.

And the Catholics, unfortunately, instead of strengthening the un-Christian tendencies to which Luther objected, and which many overly-optimistic Renaissance artists and philosophers must've thought were here to stay, went 180 degrees the other way and attempted to out-Christian him with the Counter-Reformation.

And now many progressive Christians are celebrating their recent turn toward tolerance and pro-gay-rights positions and are acting as if they think these changes are somehow guaranteed to be permanent, and that there's no cognitive dissonance involved in being a progressive Christian. They've been so pleased with themselves and the way that they've pruned a few branches of intolerance off of some of Christianity that they're giving no thought to the roots from which that intolerance grows, again and again. If the core intolerance is not dealt with -- and ignoring or denying the history of Christian intolerance is not dealing with it -- then it has not been eradicated.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

More Adventures In Autism

Blog more about being autistic, they ask me. Okay:

You may be wondering how many other autistics I've known. Yeah, I wonder that too. Please keep in mind that the great majority of middle-aged and elderly autistics in the US are undiagnosed, or misdiagnosed. (Diagnosis of those age groups is much better then in the US in some other countries and much worse in others.) One person I knew very well, who died a number of years ago, was one of those misdiagnosed people, profoundly autistic, it is clear in hindsight. I've spent some time in chess clubs, and it seems to me that the percentage of autistic people among serious chess players must be higher than among the general population. I'm thinking in particular of one gentleman who ran a chess club I belonged to, ran it very well.

That is, he ran it very well in my opinion, but then, I'm autistic, and if you asked several other people you might possibly get quite different answers. Things which annoyed me, such as too much noise during club meeting -- including too much whispering during tournaments -- were dealt with well by him. It could be that for neurologically-typical people, his strictness was much more annoying that a great deal of noise would've been. In any case, he and I got along very well, he was very kind to me, and the best chess mentor I've had. And he didn't charge for the lessons. Chess coach is a profession.

I used to participate in an Internet forum which was very close-knit socially. I always felt like a bit of an outsider, and eventually left because I felt I was causing too much annoyance to another member of the forum -- who had Asperger's Syndrome. The thing is, since leaving that forum years ago I've begun to wonder whether perhaps most or all of its members had an autistic-spectrum condition. Or at least, more of us than just he and I. This was the forum I'd been urged to join by members of another forum, urging which caused me to call myself The Wrong Monkey, as I described in this post. I was The Wrong Monkey in that forum before I had this blog, and before I even really understood what a blog was. It was a member of that forum who explained to me how blogs worked and suggested a blog might be for me, thank you very much again for that, former fellow forum member.

The thing is, I sometimes forget that many autistics are much, much, much, much less reticent about saying "Hi there, my name is ______, I'm autistic, how are you?!" than I am. Well, that's just one of the things. Another is that one of the things I probably could've done better at that forum is that by the end I had put way too many of the others on ignore, so it's entirely possible that a lot of them had tried to tell me that they, too, were on the autistic spectrum. It's quite conceivable to me that one of them had explained to me that the forum was basically designed as a meeeting-place for Aspergers and asked me how I had managed to miss that, and also that the folks from the first forum, the extremely-polite one had suggested I look into the second one, had recommended the second one because it was known as a gathering place for Aspies, and that they hadn't been suggesting I leave their forum at all.

So in answer to the question of how many autistics I known or have know, there are two potentially huge unknowns: lack of proper diagnosis, and lack of people necessarily wanting to share that diagnosis with me. Well, three factors: the ignore function on certain forums. I've really overdone it with the ignore function, so it's entirely possible that people have told me a great deal of very useful things and mistakenly assumed I heard them. Live and learn! Excelsior.

So I've been watching a lot of "The Big Bang Theory." Between CW and TBS it's on TV A LOT. (Because of a huge fanatical autistic fan base, many of whom don't suspect in the slightest that they're autistic? Just guessing.) Some big differences between Sheldon and myself: I've never taken an IQ test which scored as high as 185 if you ace it; Sheldon is very successful professionally; I have had to fend for myself much more than Sheldon, and so never developed habits of dependency such as demanding that he be chauffeured around by friends and associates. I believe I'm more self-aware than Sheldon, but that's very difficult to gauge. Isn't it? Isn't self-awareness difficult for oneself to gauge? Similarities between myself and Sheldon: difficulty understanding when people are being sarcastic and when they're not; annoying people without understanding what we did wrong.

Then there's the eye-contact thing. This is interesting. IMHO most fictional autistic characters on TV and in movies -- for example, the title character in "Bones," and Chloe and Edgar in "24," make much more eye contact than most autistics do. They make almost as much eye contact as the neurologically-typical characters. *LOUD BUZZER SOUND* Wrong! Notable exceptions: Rain Man, Claire Danes in the title role of Temple Grandin, the little kid in Mercury Rising, although many other details of that character were very unrealistic -- and Sheldon Cooper in part of one episode of "The Big Bang Theory," the flashback of when Leonard moves in and the elevator gets destroyed. When Leonard and Sheldon first meet, I was all: Ah-HA! Yes, there we go! That's a convincingly autistic avoidance of eye contact on Sheldon's part, wonder why TV shows and movies, including this TV series, don't get that right more often? Maybe the producers judge it to be too distracting and/or creepy. Maybe they just missed that detail, just plain got it wrong. Maybe Jim Parsons, who plays Sheldon (and does a splendid job) got that detail right, but only after several episodes had already been filmed, and so he -- and/or the producers -- decided he could get it right, but only in the flashback, so as not to disturb the show's continuity.

Maybe I have a degree of difficulty with eye contact very unusual even among autistics, what do I know, why're ya buggin me about it?

(Yes, I know Sheldon's not real, thank you.)

Then there's the controversial topic of which famous people of the past were autistic. Surely James Joyce and Ludwig Wittgenstein were. In Einstein's case -- I realize that everybody wants to claim Einstein as one of their own, and I'm not immune from such fallacies. Also, Einstein seems to have had a very active sex life. Many autistics do -- but not most. Most are all *DON'T TOUCH ME* most of the time. But there was undeniably something very unconventional about Einstein' way of thinking, and it seems quite possible to me that he was autistic. But I'm not going to go out on a limb and flatly assert that he was as I do with Joyce and Wittgenstein. I'm unusually open about my autism, so if you were assuming I'd express myself in an equally public manner about my sexuality, the ending of this post may disappoint you.

Monday, July 8, 2013

I Was Too Lazy To Remember To Buy Some Of Those Re-Uasable Cloth Shopping Bags --

-- until finally someone just gave some to me, and that's what I've been using ever since.

And usually, when I'm going through the self-checkout at a supermarket with those cloth shopping bags, I do something wrong when putting my bags in place in the bagging area, and get the "attendant has been notified to assist you" message. (Only just now, back from the supermarket, having gotten that error message again, did it occur to me to watch other shoppers with reusable bags, see if they've figured it out, and if so to copy them.) A couple of times I didn't get the error message and I thought I'd figured it out, but I'm still not error-free every time. I'm apologetic to the attendants about this, but they don't seem to mind much. One of them even pointed out that if it weren't for customers like me making such mistakes, Kroger's would have less use for employees like him.

We're co-operating, the employees and I, and I'm using the bags to try to help out people in general, help us not poison ourselves so quickly. I have no idea how much difference re-usable shopping bags make. I don't know how much difference they would make if everybody used them all the time. One could examine Europe, where it seems most people having been using re-usable bags most of the time for decades now. To me, this is what socialism is: people trying to co-operate for the common good, thinking that a rising tide floats all boats, whereas capitalism is a fight: you win because somebody else lost, or vice-versa. I was very struck by the stories of bicycle-sharing programs I began to hear about in the 1990's because they operated on the same principal as car-sharing programs I imagined as a teenager in the 1970's, living in a city filled with huge parking lots full of cars going nowhere, and it struck me how much more efficient it would be just to use much fewer cars, but communally, leaving them unlocked with the keys in the ignitions.

But of course bike-sharing programs only work if people co-operate by not stealing the bikes, and car-sharing programs haven't been tried because we just don't trust each other enough yet that the very idea would strike most people as more than a crazy pipedream.

Trust is voluntary. Although I don't believe for a second that the Soviet bloc was as bad as capitalist propaganda sometimes portrays it to have been, it was imposed by force. A system based on the proposition that sharing is better, was imposed by force. A tremendous contradiction. Perhaps socialism can only prevail by persuasion and education, until people willingly adopt it because they see its benefits, and because they see the tremendous amount of waste, suffering, pollution, disease, etc, inherent in capitalism with its misanthropic every-man-for-himself approach.

If you're not yet familiar with bicycle-sharing programs, research them, and then imagine that the same thing were done with automobiles, and that it worked. [PS, 28. April 2015: As some of you probably knew when I first wrote this, and I found out since, people ARE doing it with cars. One company doing it is called Zipcar] So much less blacktop needed for parking lots, so much more green, so much better health for all of us, even not factoring in the benefits of the increased bike-riding and walking and public transportation and so forth which would naturally come with such a big shift in thinking. You may say that I'm a dreamer and so forth and so on, but I'm not the only one, et cetera, and if we don't imagine paradigm-shifting improvements in our behavior, how are they ever to come about? Through capitalism's invisible hand? No, I really don't think so. Capitalism may well have been a tremendous improvement over mercantilism, but that was centuries in the past, and we can do much better, and when we do hopefully we won't repeat the mistake of so many capitalists of thinking that we finally possess the best-possible way of doing things. Hopefully we can be modest enough to see that progress doesn't stop with us, having come at last to its ultimate fruition, and that given more progress, people in the future will come up schemes for getting along with each other far beyond what any of us now can envision.

Imagine no junk mail. I mean none. How big a forest is that?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

"Contemporary Progressive" Religion

A new edition of some of the hadiths, the sayings of Muhammed, has been published in Turkey, intended for the use of "today's average Turk." Apparently the publication is causing some hoopla.

I don't know a lot about contemporary Islam, and I don't know how common such efforts are to edit core Islamic texts "for 21st-century Muslims." This effort in Turkey reminds me of what is advocated by many present-day Christian and Jewish theologians: efforts to make their religions "contemporary and progressive." I'm using quotation marks because I don't think there is any such thing as progressive 21st century religion. There are intelligent progressive people who are religious. And there are plenty of dimwitted atheists too, just look at the readers' comments in HP Religion. But even the dimwitted atheists are right about religion being make-believe (you don't have to be brilliant to see that), and an intelligent and well-informed religious believer, no matter how intelligent he or she may be on other subjects, is living in a world of make-believe whenever he or she talks about religion. He or she may be extremely well-informed about the names, dates and places of early Christianity, whereas a maddening number of atheist numbskulls insist on talking about such things without having first obtained a clue, claiming, for example, that Constantine re-wrote the Bible (there no evidence he ever even read it) at the Council of Nicea along with the Pope (the Pope wasn't there) in the year 400. (The Council of Nicea took place in 325, and Constantine died in 337.) But when it comes to the actual faith, suddenly the dopey atheist and the learned believer switch places: the atheist points out obvious things such as that it is absurd to build one's life around ancient or modern - religious texts, and the believer says ridiculous things such as "God's plan for us[...]" or "The timeless wisdom of these holy books[...]"

"We don't live in the 20th century anymore," said Mehmet Ozafsar, who oversaw this new publication, which involved more than 100 scholars in all, referring approvingly to the new edition of Mohammad's sayings. Of course not: a contemporary, cultured, enlightened Muslim lives simultaneously in the 21st and 7th centuries, just the same way that a contemporary, cultured, enlightened Christian lives simultaneously in the 21st and 1st century, and a contemporary, cultured, enlightened practicing Jew lives at one and the same time in today's world and in some various eras BC.

"We needed a new work with Islamic beliefs in the perspective of today's culture," Ozafsar went on. What they needed, I think, was some help in blurring the differences between today and 1400 years ago. I believe that theology consists more and more in the effort to help people fight off the impulse to think about certain things. The sad simple fact is that progress is made, and that while people of earlier ages may now and then have said something which we today still can find beautiful, or sometimes even wise, we cannot accept wholesale any worldview from centuries ago expressed in a form amounting to more than a couple of pages of prose, because any dimwit living today will have come to conclusions surpassing some of the conclusions of the wisest sage from then. Hume and Mohammed and Ezra are not to be despised for this mundane fact of life, any more than a 14th-century horse breeder would be mocked because any moped would beat any of his horses in a races of more than 2 miles.

What any atheist has grocked that any believer has not is that any text written in a time when it had not yet occurred to anyone anywhere that the institution of slavery might be wrong, not that this or that individual slave here and there had merited being freed but that the entire institution was wrong, along with institutions of misogyny and tribalism and superstition, IS NOT TO BE USED AS A GUIDE TO LIFE, AS ONE'S LIFE'S CENTRAL TEXT. That we can do better now. That religious believers misuse the term "superstition," that "religion" is synonymous with it, and does not refer, as the religious believer maintains, only to religions which conflict with his or her own.

As an amateur historian, naturally I'm interested in ancient texts -- and the more ancient the texts are, in every written culture I've encountered yet, the more religious they are -- and naturally I think it's great when other people study them too. As I hinted above, I wish many atheists would either become much more familiar with certain people, places and things from long ago OR FOR THE LOVE OF SHIVA STOP PRATTLING ON ABOUT THEM ALL THE LIVE-LONG DAY AS IF THEY SUPPOSED THEY HAD A CLUE. And as I said, many believers do study ancient texts relevant to their religions. Now if they could only drop the blinkers which make them pick a certain range of texts and study them with no critical faculties and declare that they are "holy" and/or "imbued with timeless wisdom." Timeless wisdom? I'd say there is no such thing. Hundreds of millions of years ago our ancestors were worms, tens of millions of years ago they were rodents, thousands of years ago every war was a total war and lasted until everyone on one side was dead or enslaved, hundreds of years ago the notion that women were as intelligent as men was not yet very widespread -- among men. Starting to see a pattern here? Good! Don't yet see how religion belongs back in the past with those other things? Keep thinking. Please. Because it's really not yet as if the human race were burdened with an overabundance of good sense.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Some Pictures Of Watches

In this post I enthused about railroad watches. It occurs to me that some photos might help people keep up with what I'm talking about. This:



may be a good example of a railroad watch. I say "may," because I don't know anything about the Howard watch company, let alone this particular model. But the plain white face and the very prominent black Arabic numerals make it look the part. It also has every minute in the hour individually numbered, and every 5th minute numbered in red. That's all good. However, I can't tell whether this watch is lever-set. Also, there's a lot of fancy engraving on the case, you can see it there on the edges. That's all well and good if you like that sort of thing, but for me personally it gives the impression of frivolousness, when a railroad watch should be all business. All work, no play. In my opinion, that is. Ask 10 different enthusiasts what a railroad watch should be and there may not be 2 identical answers. It's one of those questions like, when did the Middle Ages begin in Europe? There's no one correct answer. But most people would agree that some watches were railroad watches, and some others were given faces which looked like the faces of railroad watches, and called railroad watches by their manufacturers, for marketing purposes. Some chump in 1910 might've shelled out a few extra bucks for something which in his mind was a railroad watch, but which no actual railway conductor would touch with a 10-foot chain. Or he might not have been a chump at all, and paid primarily for a solid gold case, and the mechanical differences which may have existed between his watch and a much more reliable and much cheaper railroad watch may not have mattered to him, if he ever had an inkling of them.

This:



is a lever-set watch made by Hamilton. The crystal has been unscrewed and the lever, that little silver thing outside the dial a little before 1:30, has been pulled out. With the lever out, the stem, which usually winds the watch, now sets the time. The lever will have to be pushed back in before the crystal will fit back in place. This is a businesslike feature: the stem cannot accidentally slip from the winding to position to the timesetting position. The numerals for the hours are much starker and plainer than those on the Howard. Less ornamentation, more readability. More function, a more down-to-business approach. Me likey! However, this Hamilton has no numerals for the minutes, and that disappoints me. Take the Hamilton's numerals, and add a red numeral on the edge of the dial for every 5th minute, and we'd be getting closer to what I would call the perfect railroad-watch face. As it is, the Hamilton looks more like a railroad watch to me than the Howard. Actually, there is a completely objective way to answer the question of whether a particular watch is a railroad watch. Railroads had specifications for the watches their conductors carried. These regulations varied from one railroad to another and also changed over time. If a watch met the specifications for a certain railroad at a certain time, it was a railroad watch -- for that railroad at that time.

Here are a couple more pictures I found amusing. Most of us think of digital watches as electronic devices which began to be marketed in the 1970's -- most of us who were alive in the 1970's that is. They were luxury items at first. One of the first was the first Pulsar watch, which appeared in 1972, was made of 18-carat gold and cost over $2000. Here's a late-70's Pulsar:



But Pulsars were not the first digital watches. Nor were the first digital watches electronic. Here's a digital wind-up watch sold by Cortébert in the 1890's. Like the first Pulsars, it was an expensive luxury item:



Thursday, July 4, 2013

Mechanical Pocket Watches

Mechanical pocket watches -- ones which are wound by hand, as opposed to being battery- or light-powered or something else -- are still manufactured today. They may (or may not) be hard to find in your local jewelry store, but in this case as in many others of items rare or offbeat, Amazonrides in to the rescue. At last count they offer 382 different models of mechanical pocket watches, that's not all watches, but pocket watches, and not even all pocket watches, but just mechanical pocket watches. Just the ones which are wound up manually. And also no antiques. Antique pocket watches may be the bulk of the pocket-watch market overall, but these are 382 models of new ones.

In case you're wondering -- yes, I've noticed that some people think that pocket watches are geeky, and not at all in a good way. That doesn't really bother me. Put it this way: it seems that a lot of guys wear pork-pie hats. (I don't recall ever having seen a women wear a pork-pie hat.) I think pork-pie hats look stupid. (And frankly, the very thought of a woman wearing one seems much worse still than men wearing them, the very thought appalls me.) But I don't think there's any reason for pork-pie-hat-wearers to be bothered by my opinion of their headwear. If you're worried about people laughing at what you wear, you and I are traveling through life on completely different trains, it's just as simple as that.

There seem to be many more very inexpensive mechanical pocket watches available at Amazon than there were a few months ago. (I'm talking under $30.) Maybe they're much more plentiful in brick-and-mortar jewelry stores than the last time I looked, too. I don't know whether more are actually being made now, or whether the change at Amazon only happened at Amazon: whether they just suddenly scoured that market niche a little harder. I've seen some signs of worry of an impending disruption of the mechanical-watch market by means of a great dumping of inexpensive Chinese mechanical movements. Perhaps this has come to pass and all these under-$30 wind-up pocket watches on Amazon are a sign of it.

Maybe pocket watches have actually come back, fashion-wise, and some of those who recently pointed and laughed at them wear them now. Who knows? (Not me, that's who.)

There still seems to be one very distinct difference between new pocket watches and new wristwatches: while wristwatches often cost six figures or more, pocket watches seem to top out at two or three thousand dollars. I can't find a (new) solid gold pocket watch for sale anywhere. If pocket watches were really and truly back, fashion-wise, wouldn't there be gold and platinum pocket watches being made, as there were decades ago? (Again: I don't know. I don't even know whether my not being able to find such new high-end pocket watches really means that they're not being made.)

I find it somewhat hard to evaluate the reliability of the information I've found about watches, all watches, which I've found on the Internet and in books, because almost all of it is written by manufacturers or dealers, and I don't know how much of what they say is just plain advertising for their own wares. Not just with stuff written recently, either. There's an interesting little book, barely 60 pages long including the Dedication and Preface, The Watch: Its Construction, Its Merits And Defects, How To Choose It, And How To Use It,published by Henry F Piaget in 1860. You're thinking, Ah, Piaget, one of the famous Swiss watchmakers. Nope. This Piaget was an American watchmaker. The famous Swiss Piaget company wasn't founded until 14 years after Henry published his little book. But there were plenty of other Swiss watch manufacturers in 1860. To hear Henry tell it, the best watches in his day were made in the US and England, and Switzerland was flooding the world watch market with items which were flashy and inexpensive and not particularly good. Was that really the case, or is Henry's book just advertising and did he slag the Swiss only because they were his biggest competitors? Or was Henry exaggerating the case just slightly? Perhaps not meaning to be dishonest at all, but an enthusiastic salesman and a little carried away? (Once again: I have no idea.)

For the sake of whatever, let's take Henry F Piaget, and the people warning about a dire invasion of crappy cheap Chinese watches today, at their word. In that case, in 150 years the Swiss went from dumpers of mass-produced junk to the world's leader in the making of fine luxury watches. Maybe in 2160 China will be the acknowledged home of the best crafters of handmade beautiful expensive watches, and -- oh, let's say, Germany will be in the process of transforming the watch market by flooding it with cheap junk.

Or maybe by 2160 almost no one will wear a watch anymore. Or maybe most people won't even know what a watch is. Already today mobile communication devices have replaced watches to a great degree. Will there still be 24 hours in a day in 2160? How many people will even call it 2160? There's no "Duh-duh-DUHHH" here, the thought of such changes doesn't alarm me, I'm just wondering.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

My Name Is Steven, And I'm Addicted To Railroad Watches

Okay, maybe "addicted" isn't the right term, if the "addict" in question doesn't actually buy any of the stuff he's "addicted" to. At this point it's still just a mental thing with me, but if my finances were to substantially improve, railroad watches are at the top of the frivolous purchases to be added to my life. Well, the watches and the maintenance of them. I don't think I'd want to stop at one railroad watch. We're talking $100 to several grand a pop, and then an annual cleaning, adjustment and, if necessary, repair, which could easily cost more than the initial purchase price of the watch in question. Not happening right now.

Hey Steve, you may be asking -- what the heck is a railroad watch? Strictly speaking, railroad watches were the timepieces carried by railroad conductors during the era when mechanical watches, that is, watches wound by hand, were the most reliable timekeeping devices available to those conductors, which complied to the regulations of the railroad. The regulation varied from one railroad to another. And you know what, for all I know, even after battery powered watches began to replace wind-up models, in the 1970's maybe? and began to far outshine then in terms of accuracy, those battery-powered watches might still have been referred to as railroad watches. And today the handheld devices used by conductors which are synchronized to the Internet might be called railroad watches.

What I'm getting as it that the definitions vary. I'm going to tell you what I mean by "railroad watch." Not everyone would agree with my definition -- and that's fine with me -- but some people would. What I have in mind is an open-faced pocket watch -- "open faced" means that there's no cover which snaps shut. You don't have to open anything to read the time -- made in the late 19th or early 20th century, made to exacting standards, very accurate and very durable compared to other timepieces of the period, but generally without precious metals (except perhaps for a gold-plated case) or encrustations of showy jewels (although the jewels inside, in the movement of the watch, away from view, are of course crucial), because after all it was conductors who were buying these watches, or railroads buying them for their conductors, and not aristocrats or robber barons. A size-18 pocket watch (that's rather large), with a 17- or 19- or 21- or 23-jewel movement, adjusted 5 ways: face up, face down, stem up, stem down, face and stem both sideways. With a double roller. And lever-set. (Instead of pulling out the stem that winds the watch in order to set the time, you unscrew the crystal covering the face and pull out a lever at 2 o'clock. This changes the stem from the wind function to the set-time function. That's lever-set, and it's great: there's no way to accidentally re-set the time. The stem won't accidentally catch on something and go from wind to set. You can't pull out the set lever when the crystal is in place, and you can't accidentally unscrew the crystal.) With black Arabic numerals on a white face, the idea here being, just as with the lack of a snap-shut case, that the time could be read easily and quickly. Just describing such watches is making my brain roll around on its back and purr.

Some contemporary mechanical watches have windows which let you look inside and see the gears as they run, which is pretty cool in its own way and sometimes part of a very handsome overall look, and it may be that the movement which is always thus on display is also actually extremely accurate -- the best contemporary mechanical watches beat the best from a century ago in accuracy, hands down -- but with a see-through watch, depending on the light and the sparklyness of the face and other factors, you might have to look at it for a while and hold it this way and that before you can actually read the time.

Actually reading the time with ease is not always the point with watches these days, not even with extremely expensive mechanical watches put together with such loving care and expertise that the difference in accuracy between them and a $20 quartz-battery watch is negligible. Well, I like the functionality of a clean white face and plain black hands and stark black Arabic numerals for the hours, and hopefully also stark red numerals for the minutes out on the edge. No sparkle here. It's not only not the point, it would be counterproductive. I know none of that is necessary these days, I know my cell phone keeps much better time than any of those railroad watches ever will. I know, I know. What's moving me here is not, strictly speaking, functionality, any more than functionality is what moves a person to spend thousands of dollars on a brand-new wind-up watch which is extremely accurate but you can't always read the extremely-accurate time right away. Depending on the light. That's the thing: none of this railroad-watch obsession is rational. The things I love about these watches were practical a century ago, but no more. (EMP, you may be exclaiming, EMP! In the case of an electro-magnstic pulse bomb, the battery and Internet timekeeping devices would be disabled, and the railroad watches wouldn't be! But you know what, I think the EMP would wreck the railroad watches too. You don't want to even put a railroad watch down next to a TV because its magnetic field will damage the watch. I'm afraid that in the case of a EMP bomb the railroad watches would be toast along with the more modern devices. And even if they wouldn't be, that practicality would not be the point.) I don't share the passion of the guy spending a fortune for a new wind-up watch with a see-through window and an extremely sparkly face, and maybe several different pairs of hands keeping the time in several different continents, whatever -- I don't share that passion, but now I definitely UNDERSTAND it. All my life I'd heard about the irrational obsessions of collectors, but until this watch bug bit me recently I'd never experienced it. I used to look down a little on women who had, or wanted to have, many pairs of shoes. But no more. Women's shoes are just as thoroughly boring to me as they ever were, but I think that the fascination with them is similar to my fascination with the railroad watches. With the shoes and with the watches, I think, it has to do with thoughts and emotions which are separate from those which are immediately practical, which operate from some other place in the brain. I'd heard a lot about collectors, but now I potentially am one. All I lack is the cash. Century-old railroad watches, brand-new expensive flashy sparkly hard-to-read watches, shoes, paintings, vintage cars, coins, postage stamps, butterflies or something else, we collectors sneer at those who buy the things just in order to sell them later. Those people are investors or dealers. They don't get it at all. They're operating from practical motives. I'm one of the collectors now, mentally and emotionally if not actually materially. I get it now.